The zombie-like life of a bill that would have drastically loosened gift rules for lawmakers and state employees is over.
SB 671 met its end Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee, which unanimously deferred the measure, signaling its death — at least for this year.
The bill started as good-government ethics legislation, proposing across-the-board reforms. But then Sen. Brickwood Galuteria got his hands on it and created an entirely different animal.
Galuteria in February proposed an amendment that would have permitted officials to accept unlimited food and beverage gifts, single gifts of up to $200 with no cap listed as to how many such gifts could be received from a single entity or person, and substantial travel opportunities not currently available.
That bill was eviscerated by a Senate committee after warnings by the State Ethics Commission. But then it was reborn, this time vastly expanding the definition of a charitable entity to include labor unions and business leagues.
That version, too, bit the dust.
But like some creature from a B-movie, SB 671 found a way to claw itself back into the limelight and continue to irk good government groups and the State Ethics Commission.
The House Judiciary Committee reinvented it, again calling for additional perks for politicians and state employees.
But Thursday the saga came to an end.
“It has had a long road,” Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo told Civil Beat. “The commission opposed the bill, so we’re happy that the committee decided to defer.”
So what does that mean for ethics in Hawaii?
The short answer is that business will continue as usual. But now business as usual will mean more questions about whether it’s acceptable for lawmakers to accept free tickets to charitable events. That’s where the controversy began, when Kondo advised Sen. President Shan Tsutsui that legislators could not accept $200 tickets to a Hawaii Institute For Public Affairs fundraiser. The chairman of HIPA, Bill Kaneko, led the transition team for Gov. Neil Abercrombie and was his campaign manager. He was also a vocal voice in supporting SB 671.
In an email to Civil Beat, House Judiciary Chair Gilbert Keith-Agaran described his interpretation of what Thursday’s decision will mean. He wrote:
“After reviewing the past decisions, advisory opinions and informal advisory opinions of the ethics, I believe the flexibility of the current statutory language which bars gifts ‘under circumstances in which it can reasonably be inferred that the gift is intended to influence the legislator or employee in the performance of the legislator’s or employee’s official duties or is intended as a reward for any official action on the legislator’s or employee’s part’ continues to balance the expectations of constituents and local groups for their legislators to come to meetings, events and fundraising dinners and the concerns of legislative watchdogs about lobbyist influence. The present executive director has described his case-by-case approach regarding ‘gifts of aloha,’ the local custom of meeting over a meal, his e-bay distinction, and ‘protocol invitees’ – whether application of those approaches change what has been advised in the prior written decisions and opinions of the commission will have to await real rather than hypothetical circumstances. If there are improvements required for the statute, we can address those issues in the future.”
Going forward politicians may have to pay their own way, something Kondo had told committee after committee has always been an option.
Read our previous coverage on SB 671: